On the Hope Canteen, we are beginning a new series called How to Pray. We want to help people create a meaning-filled and life-giving practice of prayer.
Prayer is one of the touchstones of my day. It is where I connect with God and have the opportunity to think, centre, pray, journal, relax, and take some time just to be. I have found that people often want to pray, but only know it as reading lists of names. My hope is that by the end of this series, you will see what is possible.
Some Ingredients for Growing in Faith
Before I get into prayer itself, I want to make some preliminary comments about what is necessary to ‘grow in faith.’ While the prayer series is part of our theme for this fall, faith is more than prayer. It is a whole approach to life that grows over time.
Faith starts with saying yes to God. From there, it develops trust in God and learns to receive the love of God. Then it grows to being able to ‘see’ (i.e. discern) God working in different parts of our life. Then again over time, it grows into seeing God in all aspects of life. Ultimately, we learn to see our whole life in God no matter what is happening to us, either good or bad.
Today, I want to touch on four elements we need to put in place to be able to ‘grow in faith’ as a Christian.
As with most other religions, Christianity has doctrines. This just means that we believe certain things to be true and other things not to be true. Having common beliefs is not meant to impede free thought, curiosity, or intellectual exploration. It just means that in the end, we believe that the story of Jesus Christ is a true story.
Like any good story, this story raises lots of questions: who is Jesus? How is he related to God? What is the Bible? What is salvation? What happens after we die? How good do we have to be? What is grace? What is the Gospel? The Christian church has spent a lot of time answering all those questions, and the answers to those questions are the doctrines of the church. Part of growing in faith is getting to know the answers to those questions and asking what they mean for you. The answers are important because they address the HOW of coming to know God, WHY our lives exist, and what is the point of it all. Knowledge gets us going in the right direction.
2) The Journey of Faith
Knowledge by itself is not enough. We are living, embodied people, and we have to be able to live out what we believe. Saying that a journey is important for faith is to say that we need to make the Gospel into the rhythm of our lives.
Pilgrimage is a very practical metaphor for how we grow in faith. This year I was supposed to go to Iona on pilgrimage. Unfortunately, it didn’t work out because of Covid. Going on a pilgrimage is an amazing way to take a journey. Iona is the island where St. Columba landed after being exiled from Ireland. There, he formed a monastery. Pilgrims have been visiting that holy place ever since.
To embark on a pilgrimage is to bring your whole life temporarily into a particular part of the story of God. Iona offers pilgrims the chance to walk in the footsteps of St. Columba. On pilgrimage, I look at my life in light of this story, my own story, the prayers of my heart, and so on.
Ordinary Life is Pilgrimage
The interesting and ironic learning of pilgrimage is that you don’t have to go to exotic places to be on a journey with God. Pilgrimages always point you back to your own life. Make your ordinary life a journey in small ways and large.
For instance, I go on a pilgrimage every single day. As one of my daily rhythms, I get up before everyone else does. I pour myself a cup of coffee to drink while I pray and read and just sit in silence. This has become a cherished part of my day. I look forward to that first sip of coffee in the morning, the first breath of fresh outside air and the first moments of talking to God. It is special for me.
I say that it is a journey because it has a beginning. Then as it goes on, I gain insight as I talk with God and think about what I am reading. Then it comes to an end. The whole process is a small journey that I take every day that feeds my soul.
Layers of Journeys
This small morning journey is not the only one I am on. I am always on a yearlong journey through the church calendar. I go from Advent to Christmas to Easter and back again. During the year, I have so many experiences and joy and frustration, and all of it causes me to grow. In this season of my life, I am also in the journey of fatherhood. Also, every week I journey from Sabbath to Sabbath.
To grow in faith, we need these daily, weekly and yearly rhythms, all lived in the presence of God. Prayer is talking to God, but it also contains rhythms that form our whole lives.
3. Make it Personal
As I have meditated on different Christian programs that have been successful in helping people to grow in faith, three have stood out to me: Cursillo, TEC (Teens Encounter Christ) and Alpha. I have personal experience with these three, but there are many more.
What is it that makes them work? First off, they each combine the first two elements of faith building well. They each give knowledge about the faith. Then, the whole experience is meant to be a journey. The first two are a retreat weekend with a beginning, middle and end. Alpha is a ten-week journey. They all incorporate a very personal element. In each of these three programs, you are given the chance to sit with someone in prayer. The person praying for you is there to keep everything you say confidential, be non-judgemental, and to be a safe and prayerful presence. They give you the space to look into your heart.
Growing in Your Faith
This is not just for sensitive people. I have seen tough men walk this path and discover the living God. Given the opportunity, anything can happen: you can confess sin, you can express your joys, you can talk about your confusions, you can get excited about your breakthroughs, you can admit that you are stuck. There are no expectations. The point is that a space is created where faith can become real and personal. It is no longer information, something your parents made you do, or a habit that you have cultivated. This is about YOU, and all the stuff in YOUR life and YOUR heart.
At some point on the journey of faith, you have to realize that God is actually talking to you personally, and that all of this stuff you know is real and for you. Everything changes when you get to this point.
Programs like Cursillo, Alpha and TEC are by no means the only place you can develop a personal faith. Like pilgrimage, they always point you back to your unique, ordinary life. Faith can be real for you on your sofa all by yourself. But at some point, you need to take the step and make it personal.
4) Grow in Faith with a Supportive Community
Faith grows best when we are surrounded by supportive people who are on the same journey of faith. To that end, we need people in our lives that we can talk with, laugh with, confide in and be real with. We also need to learn to be that person for others. These don’t have to be close friends, but we do need to be able to gather and worship with others.
Ideally, this community would be the church. I know that doesn’t always work for people. But part of the purpose of the church is to be the community that proclaims the gospel, celebrates the sacraments, and loves one another. It is meant to be the fertile ground where faith will grow.